On Mysticism, Electability, and the Conundrum of the Female Candidate

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

In my Political Psychology class at Berkeley, we read about a study in which participants were asked to pick between two candidates immediately after their pictures flashed onscreen. Participants had their brains scanned during the study to measure how fast the brain lights up once the pictures were introduced. What the researchers found was that people make a decision on which candidate they liked better … in a billionth of a second.

One billionth of a second. What could you possibly be responding to so quickly?

“People will never forget how you made them feel.”

When discussing political candidates, we like to envision ourselves as rational actors carefully weighing policy points and party platforms. But in everyday conversation, that’s not the language we use. We don’t say “I condone Obama’s environmental advocacy,” we say “He seems like a cool guy.”

Obama had a swagger and charisma that made you feel hopeful about the potential of the nation. George W. Bush had a down home charm; “He’s a guy I want to have a beer with.” Trump was a guy who “tells it like it is, man. He tells it like it is.” And Clinton? “She was uninspiring. I don’t trust her. I just don’t trust her.”

One of my good friends, pursuing a Masters in philosophy, recently wrote a paper on true love and mystery. The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy argues that when you fall in love with someone, you don’t fall in love with a set of characteristics (if that were true, you’d be falling in love with a whole number of people with those same characteristics), you fall in love with the “absolute mystery” of a person. You fall in love with an undefinable “you-ness” of the other person, outside of physical features, experiences, or personality.

In a similar vein, candidates have an “undefinable mystery” that draws the electorate to fall for them. Obama’s “mystery” was enveloped in cool and calm. Bush’s “mystery” was defined by Southern comfort.

Naturally, some of the mysticism around candidates is crafted by campaigns and media cycles, and many who say “Hillary Clinton is untrustworthy” are regurgitating an oft-repeated attack mantra.

But how much of it is socially programmed and how much of it is gut instinct? For some, Trump’s image engendered feelings of disgust and disdain. For others, the candidate made them feel some type of way. He made them feel heard, more so than a Cruz or a Rubio or a Carson ever could.

Which brings us to the question — when it comes to electability on a grand scale, do policy points even matter? Or is it more contingent on that undefinable quality, that “mystery” and “you-ness,” that attracts/repels millions?

If the general electorate is making judgements of candidates in a billionth of a second, on a sub-conscious level, how does a candidate even go about shaping their mystery?

More pressingly, given our current predilections, is it even possible for a female candidate to embody a mysticism that the mass populace would respond to? If a woman is too cool and down-to-earth, does that make her seem less competent? If she’s too competent, does that make her seem too stiff? How does she strike a balance between “I want to grab a beer with her” and “I want her to be qualified”? Is America really just looking for a cross between Jennifer Lawrence, Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren?

We know Hillary struggled with creating an image that was “less robotic” and “more warm.” She was competent, she was qualified, but she didn’t make you “feel inspired.”

And here-in lies the conundrum for female candidates. She must be qualified. But if she spends her whole life attaining qualifications, she doesn’t get to create that aura of mysticism that galvanizes the base.

I believe she’s out there. A female candidate who has the gravitas of an Obama with the competence of a Hillary. I know there are women in the Millennial generation waiting to deliver. And when she comes, we’ll know.

In a billionth of a second, we’ll know.